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Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, responds to Education Minister Laurel Broten's comments in Toronto, Ont. on Thursday, April 12/2012.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

When the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association reached an agreement with the provincial government last week that includes a two-year freeze to cost-of-living increases and unpaid days off work, it was almost immediately denounced by the province's other teachers' unions. Their reaction, shared by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, suggests a heads-in-the-sand approach to fiscal and political realities that will do organized labour no favours.

Ontario's public-sector wage bill skyrocketed during strong economic times; now, faced with a $15-billion deficit and the prospect of relatively low economic growth for the foreseeable future, the province has little choice but to rein it in. The question is not whether the government will take a run at public-sector salaries and benefits, but how. It's in unions' interests to have a say in what restraint looks like.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has signalled that, if unions won't agree to wage freezes and other austerity measures, he will seek to legislate them; this spring, his minority government used its regulatory powers to impose cuts to doctors' fees after talks with the Ontario Medical Association broke down. Teachers could be next.

Mr. McGuinty's Liberals are surely aware that, if they're not tough enough on labour, the public could turn to Tim Hudak's Progressive Conservatives. That prospect should provide an incentive for unions to accept concessions now. Mr. Hudak recently released a white paper which proposed a full-scale war on organized labour – including an elimination of the Rand Formula, which would make union dues optional rather than mandatory.

While Ontario's imperatives are particularly urgent, unions elsewhere in the country should take note as well. As governments grapple with cost crunches caused by aging populations, they will look to wage restraint as a way to save money without reducing services. That's particularly the case when there is a sense, as there is in Ontario, that public-sector workers have been sheltered from the effects of economic turmoil.

OECTA's relatively cooperative approach has been chalked up to it traditionally being the "weakest" of Ontario's teachers' unions. But by working constructively with government, the union was able to help shape austerity measures – notably by spreading modest pain across its membership in the form of the unpaid days, rather than having its younger members bear the brunt of it. If other unions' intransigence makes them easy targets, that "weakness" may come to be seen as a strength.

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